Tips for Using a Compound-Miter Saw


Tool Lab: Sliding Compound-Miter Saws, Spring 2021, Chris Ermides testing a miter saw
Meg Reinhardt

A miter saw is a smart tool to have in your workshop. It is often used to cut moldings, baseboards, and trim with accuracy. Read on for tips and tricks for how to safely and accurately cut with a compound-miter saw. 

How to Use a Sliding Compound-Miter Saw

Tool Lab: Sliding Compound-Miter Saws, Spring 2021, technique illustrations Ian Worpole
  • Step 1: Without turning the saw on, lower the blade and line up the cutline on the workpiece with the blade’s teeth. Then raise the blade head and pull it all the way toward you.
  • Step 2: With the blade head in the “up” position, start the saw and let the blade come up to speed. Slowly pull the head down to engage the blade with the workpiece.
  • Step 3: Hold the head down as you push the blade all the way through the work.
  • Step 4: Continue to hold the head down as you release the trigger. Wait until the blade comes to a complete stop, then bring the head back to its starting position.

Tip: For smooth cuts, less tear-out

Pull the blade head partway down in Step 2, and make a shallow score across the stock’s surface in Step 3.

Pull the blade head back, then push it all the way down and through the stock at the score line.

Two Quick Checks to Ensure Accurate Cuts

1. Square the fence to the blade

Tool Lab: Sliding Compound-Miter Saws, Spring 2021, “Square the fence to the blade”
  • Place the long leg of a try square against the left-hand fence, atop a lighted flashlight.
  • Push the square’s short leg against the blade, without touching the blade’s teeth. The flashlight’s beam will reveal any gaps between the fence and the square.
  • Adjust the fence per the instructions in the owner’s manual.
  • On saws that have two separate fences, align the left fence first, then use a straightedge to align the right fence with the left one.

2. Square the blade to the table

Tool Lab: Sliding Compound-Miter Saws, Spring 2021, “Square the blade to the table”
  • Lay the long leg of the square against the saw’s table, and hold the short leg vertically against the blade.
  • Shine a light behind the short leg. If a gap shows between the square and the blade, recalibrate the blade’s tilt, per the owner’s manual.

Tip: Find gaps with light

When checking a saw’s fence or blade with a square, shine a flashlight behind or under the square. The beam will instantly show through any gaps and indicate where adjustments are needed.

Miter Saw Safety Checklist

Before making a cut…

  • Put on hearing and eye protection.
  • Clamp or firmly hold the workpiece down against the saw’s table and back against the fence.
  • Support the ends of a long piece so that it lies flat on the saw table.
  • Keep hands at least 6 inches away from the cutline beneath the blade.
  • When making bevel cuts, check that the blade will clear the fence. If it doesn’t, slide the fence out of the way.

Useful Jigs

Zero-clearance jig

Tool Lab: Sliding Compound-Miter Saws, Spring 2021, jig 1

1. Stop tear-out. Secure a thin piece of plywood or MDF to the saw table, and plunge the blade head into it. The resulting slot is narrow enough to stop the blade from splintering the underside of the wood, and it provides a guide for quickly aligning the cutline on the workpiece, as shown.

Nesting jig for crown molding

Tool Lab: Sliding Compound-Miter Saws, Spring 2021, jig 2 w/ labels

2. Cut crown. This three-piece nesting jig, fastened to the saw fence, supports the molding so it doesn’t twist or slip when being cut. The jig consists of a fence (A) about 1½ inches taller than the crown in its nested position, and a cleat attached to a base (B).

The cleat is positioned precisely so that the flats at the back of the crown rest against the jig’s base and fence. All the parts were cut from a sheet of ¾-inch MDF. Like the zero-clearance jig above, the first cut will leave a kerf in the jig’s fence that clearly shows where to place the work’s cutline on all subsequent cuts.

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